Too Much Towering Inferno and Not Enough Jeanne Dielman

Gravity – 2013 – dir. Alfonso Cuaron 

★★★.5/★★★★

Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is a tension between two types of movies and the reason I can’t say I love it is that it the tension was off. On one end there is The Towering Inferno, the 1974 disaster film about a skyscraper on fire (shocker) and the people caught in the tragedy as the stars try and secure a rescue. On the other end there is Jeanne Dielman, the 1975 art film about three days in the life of the titular character. Gravity is torn between wanting to examine Sandra Bullock’s character and get the audience to sympathize with her, and giving us intense science fiction action through the characters’ actions.

The greatest scenes in Gravity are when we don’t learn anything about Bullock’s character, the camera starts outside her helmet and then through osmosis moves inside to show us her point of view and she goes from panicking about being alone, to accepting it and realizing the consequences of being abandoned in space. Just as in Jeanne Dielman where we get long monotonous scenes of everyday life, this focus on the characters and their personal emotional transformations are incredibly powerful. The problem is, this is the only time this really happens. The rest of the film is The Towering Inferno. Big action set pieces of things blowing up (literally everything that we see in space ends up as rubble). This would be fine if they were catalysts for more introspection of Bullock’s character, however, her agency in the film is practically procedural and takes away valuable time (the running time is only 90 minutes) from getting to know Bullock in a real way.

The film is beautiful; there is no doubt about that. And there are scenes where the beautiful cinematography captures the emotions of the characters in a very real and immersive way. However, Cuaron seems to want to move everything too quickly, afraid to let us dwell on any of the larger concepts the film flirts with. The vastness of the universe, the consequence of pure abandonment, acceptance of isolation, the understanding of one’s own mortality and the inevitability of oblivion: these concepts require time, they require emersion through confrontation and that is why this film, which is good by any standard, lacks greatness. It lacks the courage to confront the audience and settles for simplicity when it could have reached for nuance. 

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